Positive Feedback ISSUE 63
september/october 2012


A Belated Introduction from the Mile-High Writer (in Colorado)
by Lynn Olson


Hi, folks! David lit a fire under me to start writing again for PF magazine (OK, it's PFO now, but that just means it's virtual or something like that).

You'll see reviews in here every now and then, but mostly rambling thought-pieces or rants about the industry.

I'm one of the few reviewers that doesn't believe there's a correlation, either positive or negative, between price and sonic quality. The ABX nuts and anti-high-end folks believe in a negative correlation, and I don't believe that. But I don't believe the opposite, either. I've been disappointed so many times with high expectations that I don't really know what to expect when a $250,000 system lights up.

I still remember how the Audio Note Ongaku polarized the Oregon Triode Society. The $67,500 price (later raised to $82,000) drove many of the OTS'ers right around the bend. Maybe because I grew up around the ultra-wealthy in Hong Kong, the price didn't bother me at all. My take was that it either sounded good or it didn't. If I remember that first PF review, I concluded I liked it about as much as the hand-built Silver 300B from Herb Reichert... and very nearly bought Herb's amp, which I later discovered was his personal amplifier that he had hand-tuned over three years. In my view, the Ongaku was, and is, on the same sonic plane as the Reichert... just different, and aimed at different tastes. I personally liked the lusher, more emotionally involving sound of the Reichert.

My tastes have continued to move in that same direction over the last twenty years. The Karna amplifier, when combined with the Ariels, has a lot of the Reichert emotionally intense sound to it, but with aspects of the Ongaku's 3D-ness and see-through transparency. The Altec drivers in the new high-efficiency speaker have an even more expressive quality to the sound, taking it further away from the mainstream.

This perspective makes "mainstream" reviews of DACs extremely hard for me to interpret. Everyone sang the praises of a famous-name DAC to the skies, but when I compared it directly to the Monarchy DAC in my own system, it sounded flat and colorless—frankly, very disappointing. The fantastic reviews and elevated $5K price didn't matter; it just didn't work in the context of my all-triode system. It didn't sound vivid and colorful, like I expected.

That's when I realized that all the reviews of the famous-name DAC were written by reviewers using all-transistor systems. Not jumping to the conclusion that these were "bad" systems or something was wrong with the reviewers. No. Not that at all.

I realized the reviewers simply had different tastes than I do. Nothing more, nothing less. That, in turn, strongly affected their equipment preferences—they listen for different things than I do. It also made their reviews, from my perspective, not useful as guide to the sound of equipment.

Same problem with reviews of home-theater equipment; I really don't care how thumpingly loud the sound of SFX in movies are, since that's the dumbest and least important part of the movie, and a fake-artificial sound anyway, made by a Foley artist or a weird digitally-synthesized sound. Yet just about every home-theater review writes endlessly about the sound of the SFX of the latest Transformers movie.

I can't tell if the reviewer has a thinly disguised contempt for the reader, or worse, if they are "writing down" to an imaginary demographic of wealthy 40 to 55-year-old men with the cinematic tastes of 14-year-olds. That sounds kind of nasty, but really, how do else do you explain the tone of the reviews in the HT arena of the industry? Why would a guy with the moola to afford a $15K processor, $60K or more in speakers, and a $15K fancy projector want to watch a movie aimed at the pre-teen videogame demographic? If you're into SFX, why not skip over Hollywood and just connect an Xbox360 and a Playstation3 to the home theater?

Let's crawl out of the darkness of home theater and return to the sunnier uplands of the price/sound quality equation. One way through the thicket of PR gush and Internet forum confusion is realizing how high-end products are designed.

First, the name-brand doesn't matter! No really, it doesn't. The name brand is the entity that pays for the glossy 4-color ads and schmoozes the reviewer at the shows, but honestly, folks, it has almost nothing to do with the sound.

The sound is created by the engineer and/or designer behind the product. This person (usually male) is well-concealed behind the corporate facade and PR dazzle. Ever wonder why the sound of famous-name XYZ company changes? The original engineer left and they had to scramble to find another one. And these guys are big enough egotists that of course the designs of the original guy are either discarded or very heavily "improved" by the next guy.

Second: It gets worse. The vast majority of high-end firms actually only have one engineer on-staff. I'm not joking. Heck, they may not have any engineers on-staff; the products might be contracted out to a consultant whose main talent is self-promotion. Anyone that works in corporate or the government knows how well that usually turns out. I've met well-known "speaker designers" who mentioned—in passing—that the crossover (which is the heart of any loudspeaker) was "contracted out" to somebody else. That would be like BMW "contracting out" the engine, suspension, and interior design to another company—would it be a BMW any more, or just a marketing exercise?

This is surprisingly common in the high-end industry. The real designer can be fired if he reveals his role in the product at trade shows, so you usually hear who the real designer is in strict confidence, if at all. Despite high product prices, the pay scales are absurdly low (much less than a generic computer job), and engineer/designers are not treated with a lot of respect by management. This leads to a lot of turnover and burnout. Some of the most talented people I know have left the industry in disgust, while others try their luck at starting their own companies (which is a sure way to turn a large fortune into a small one). This, by the way, is why it's PFO policy to be really nice to start-ups that have neat products—they are sailing against the wind of an industry that does not welcome newcomers.

Third: Despite all the puff and hype about this or that "genius" engineer, don't you believe it. I can say from experience that solo engineers make a lot of mistakes, no matter how brilliant they may be. The most famous audio engineers of all time—Edwin H. Armstrong, Alan Dower Blumlein, Harry F. Olson, and the Bell Labs/ERPI/Altec team—worked in small teams. We have no audio engineers even remotely close to that caliber today, despite what the big egos in the industry might think. When the much less gifted engineers today work alone, they make mistakes. Lots of them. Which is why serious engineering companies like Tektronix, Hewlett-Packard, and aerospace companies use small teams, so that they can cross-check each others work. When I was at Tek for nine years, I was always on an engineering team (usually as a tech writer, but even writers make engineering contributions), and we found plenty of oversights and outright mistakes.

The purpose of a collegial approach to design is to set aside much of the inevitable ego that's involved in the creative process and look honestly at the overall design and see if it is heading in the right direction. This is how great products and innovations are designed.

Sadly, the high-end audio industry is so insular and starved of resources that a genuine engineering team is a great rarity; there's usually one superstar and one, two or three tech-helpers. That isn't an engineering team; it's a group of yes-men and a guy with delusions of grandeur. Whenever you hear any modern engineer or designer compared to the names I mentioned above, look out—a shower of hype and PR is raining down on you. Take my word for it: it's been more than fifty years than since we've had anyone of the caliber of those pioneers of audio. We don't have any Tim Berners-Lee amongst us; instead, we get corporate engineers that design lossy compression algorithms. There is actual, real talent, but it is thinly scattered across the industry, and mutual progress is hindered by corporate arrogance, trade secrecy, and Not Invented Here attitudes.

These are the most fundamental reasons why there's not much correlation—positive or negative—between price and what a product sounds like. The person responsible may or may not work for the company any more. The original designer left and the CEO/founder can't resist the urge to twiddle with the product. The company promoted the bench technician—the guy stuck with repairing the duds—into the new designer, so naturally, the design changes, since it reflects the tastes and experiences of the former bench tech. He might be good; it happens sometimes. He might not; that happens too. Some of the worst products in the industry are designed by Ph.D.’s (bet you didn't know that B*** has a Ph.D. and used to teach at MIT), so great products designed by learn-as-you-go bench techs have happened more often than you might think.

Those interviews you see in the glossy magazines with the famous-name designer? Don't believe what you read. That designer may have done nothing more than design the enclosure, or more likely, the marketing campaign, which includes which reviewer to schmooze.

It might sound like I'm hard on reviewers—well, I guess I am—but unless you are pretty technically sharp and have a few designs of your own under your belt, you're not going to know if you're getting snowed by the PR-person-in-disguise. That's why so many absurd quasi-technical things appear in the first part of magazine reviews; it's either that, or the dreaded my-trip-through-the-Sonoma-vineyards stream-of-consciousness review. I suspect those horrifying reviews are written when the deadline looms and the only way out is a few bottles of wine and a hazy recollection of a listening session. It's not like a hifi review in a glossy magazine, or glossy webzine with artsy photographs that clutter up the meandering text, is going to offer any competition to those amusing little bon mots in The New Yorker or Vanity Fair.

I had a lot more illusions about the industry when I worked for Audionics in the Seventies. After working for Tektronix in the Eighties and writing for Positive Feedback in the Nineties, the illusions are mostly gone. Not to say there aren't some pretty wonderful things out there, but please don't believe the hype about this or that company. It ain't the companies; it's the designer, and how well he or she played with others in a process of both inspiration and collaboration. That's why audio is so hit-and-miss; the sound follows the actual designer, not the corporate label, and has essentially no correlation with price, image, or prestige. Sorry to pop any bubbles.

Given the institutional bias of the glossy magazines and big audio websites towards corporations with long histories in the industry, and not by coincidence, large advertising budgets, where can an audiophile or music lover turn? One of the most important functions of the alternative webzines is the discovery of interesting products from vendors you've never heard of before. Not to toot our horn too much, but Positive Feedback has been doing that before Tim Berners-Lee came up with his wonderful invention, and the reviews were published on paper and mailed to subscribers around the world (imagine that!).

On the rare occasion you see a review from me, it's because it's a genuinely unusual product that deserves wider notice. There a lot of products I won't review because of conflict of interest—if it's speaker design or amplifier that shares technical aspects of what I do, I can't be an honest broker, since I naturally prefer my own stuff. Most designers do.

Oh yes, there's going to be a new series called "Cargo Cult Audio", where I light into the most absurd and insane things going on in the high-end biz. More to come on that.